The Lady Vanishes (1938)

It’s funny how brains work. The last great movie I saw was The Grand Budapest Hotel and (as it happens with great movies) it was still on mind today, a full week later. As The Lady Vanishes’ credits scrolled by slowly my mind wandered to something I had completely forgotten: the incredible speed at which The Grand Budapest Hotel’s opening credits flew. Then the first shot of The Lady Vanishes is this slow push into to an increasingly fake looking model, to the point where I assumed it’d be revealed to be a model a la Beetlejuice. Then this hilariously fake model car pulls up to the model, like a child pulling a toy car on a string.

Then it’s revealed that the film opens in a hotel in a vaguely Hungarian seeming country, full of crazy international characters and a manic comic energy and, well, it took me the next 45 minutes to view the film as anything other than “the thing Wes Anderson was remaking with Grand Budapest Hotel”. Which is of course ridiculous (as if this hasn’t been remade enough!) but, well, brains are weird. It makes me wonder how many other films have been completely colored by what I was watching before and after them.

This era of Hitchcock (or, at the very least, this, The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much) feels more comedically driven than anything, with their light romantic-comic duos and abundance of one-liners. But the stories are always tight, fast-paced, and full of the wonderful details that make for good and exciting thrillers. I plan on filling in a lot of my Hitchcock gaps over the course of this year, but I can’t imagine many of his later films, with their bigger budgets, scale, and set-pieces, will match the jaunty rhythms of early works like this. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen North By Northwest, but it’s certainly not a movie I remember for it’s tightness. A


The Ninth Gate (1999)

Spent most the movie as bored as Johnny Depp looks in every scene, and as bored as Polanski feels behind the camera in every scene. It’s such a great and evocative world to set a thriller in, it pains me that it wasted on something so monumentally bad. So unbearably broad, like a pilot for a TNT show, that just goes on and on an on interminably. Johnny Depp’s character is introduced. Then introduced again. Then for the next 15 minutes every character tells him what they think of him. 20 minutes in he’s still delivering bullshit cliches like “I only believe in my percentages” and “I don’t have to like you, you’re a client and you pay well”. OH REALLY? DOES HE ONLY CARE ABOUT MONEY? I HAVEN’T GOT THAT FACT YET. TELL ME AGAIN.

The music is horrible, the performances are bad, what passes for “action” sequences is laughable. Even the opening suicide fails to be evocative, taking pains to show the victim slowly placing his neck inside the noose. There’s no scene in this film that wouldn’t be improved by being cut.

And yet, it doesn’t even have the good fortune to be indulgent. Throughout the film titles of ancient books are named, but never once do we find out what is actually in any of them (including the main book Depp is so concerned with) and that’s a metaphor for the whole movie. It’s one of the least specific thrillers I have ever seen. Every line of dialogue, every plot development, is the most generic possible. Only at the end do things get the least bit weird and Polanski seems to wake up a bit (the sequence of Frank Langella performing a satanic ritual, largely in one take from the vantage point of Johnny Depp stuck in the floor, is the only moment of life in the film) but by then who gives a fuck, the story is over and I just wanted it to end.

I’d really dislike this movie if it were 90 minutes. At over two hours, I DESPISE this movie. F

Free To Play (2014)

Fairly lousy and generic documentary about e-sports that feels more like a commercial for DOTA2 than anything. Doesn’t have the personality of King of Kong, or the raw fascination with the game that defines Ecstasy of Order. I think DOTA 2 is just too complicated a sport to really be cinematic to mainstream audiences and the choice to liven it up with gross-looking fantasy video game cut-scene garbage is honestly a little embarrassing. I wish they would have either made the game explicitly for the initiated and gone into deep dives about the specifics of what made each game in The International interesting or just dedicated 10 minutes to catching mainstream audiences up. It feels like they wanted the focus to be on the players, not the game, but Jesus is the “I’ve had a hard life and I really need this win” narrative played out. The sad fact is, these are not interesting people, just people who do an interesting thing. Focus on the interesting thing.

I have to say part of my curiosity was as a fan of Valve as a gaming company, to see what their first foray into film-making (besides their often hilarious “Meet The…” TF2 videos) would be like. Turns out, it feels like promotional material. The fact that there’s no credited director is fitting. It’s so bland and by-committee you might as well just credit the film to Valve’s marketing department. True disappointment. D-

Knife of Water (1962)

Intriguing premise for a slow-burn thriller, but the domestic drama theatrics are just too rote and subtle to ever really elicit significant tension. I think it either needed to be bigger or it needed to have characters that weren’t total assholes. Stylishly shot, though. C-

Macbeth (1971)

I don’t really know anything about Shakespeare, and rarely find myself truly engaged with straight adaptations of his plays, but Polanski has come the closest to that here. The way he revels in violence and squalor and the gross overcast Scottish environments makes the story more visceral. The hallucinations, that vicious ending where Macbeth’s decapitated head sees his entire kingdom laughing at him, the bloodspray all really stick with me in the way that Shakespeare’s beautiful but (for me) distancing dialogue does not. Which probably just means I am dumb and/or uneducated. B

Halloween II (1981)

Dean Cundey and the creepy hospital setting do a majority of the heavy lifting here. I can’t stop myself from really really liking this. B

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

When The Fantastic Mr. Fox came out I hoped that Anderson’s foray into the wide-open world of animation would jostle something loose in him creatively. This and Moonrise Kingdom make me feel so vindicated. This is pure pleasure. A-

About Schmidt (2002)

Before Alexander Payne decided to slowly remove the bile from his work from Sideways to Nebraska, he hid it in plain sight here. Sneakily subversive movie. This is simultaneously a movie my mom liked because it was cute and had that funny Jack Nicholson performance and a pitch-black comedy about narcissism and denial. The reveal of Ndugu’s painting makes me want to cry for the precise opposite reason Schmidt does. A